Rhythm Nation 2814
Janelle Monáe’s new album makes art fun again
Let’s get a few things out of the way here: First, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid is definitely the best album of 2010, probably the best R&B album of the past decade and almost certainly the single most important piece of art that Sean Combs has touched since Ready To Die. Second, despite the heavy implications of those claims, there’s absolutely no reason to be afraid of it.
Of course, nobody should ever have to fear a great album – especially when it’s an increasingly rare find – but in the case of highly acclaimed R&B records, the last 20 years have seen critics unable to find their bearings. For the most part, there have been two camps, discrete and inviolably separate. On the one hand, artists are praised for making disposable, enjoyable and momentarily exciting music that’s good for dancing and/or fucking. Witness the Billboard charts since 1990. On the other hand, the tastemakers have set aside a large swath of complimentary real estate for artists who purport to be “taking it back” while “making a statement.” Witness Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, Maxwell and so on.
Of course, there’s quality and shit on both sides of that divide (can we please just forget Macy Gray already?), but the bigger question for some people is: “Where’s the record that can stand on its own as a fully realized piece of art and fill me with joy?” After all, isn’t listening to Erykah Badu just a little exhausting? Is it the fate of modern soul music to be either ridiculously fun or oppressively serious, and never the twain shall meet?
Thus, when everyone from The Atlantic to Rolling Stone to Time tells you about this fantastic new R&B singer who’s made a concept album that contains the second and third suites of her sci-fi opus that’s loosely based on a mashup of Fritz Lang and Brave New World, well, that feeling of “It’s gonna be capital-G good, but it’s gonna be a lot of work to enjoy” creeping in is forgivable.
Improbably, Janelle Monáe has delivered an exception in the form of last month’s The ArchAndroid, an album that manages to be a complete and cohesive artistic statement and a giddy, ass-out jam. You can dig into the multiple layers of concept and story or tease out the scores of disparate musical influences. You can compare the relative influence of post-disco and pre-new wave on her sound or marvel at the blithe references to British psych-folk. Or you can lace up your rollerskates and blast “Locked Inside” (which melds Monáe’s powerful voice to a track that steals its break from “Rock With You” and its melody from your fifth-grade schoolyard).
Her breakout hit “Tightrope” has benefited as much from a barn-burning appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman as it has from the song itself. Here, Monáe appears to play it straight, with a song that purports to pay homage to James Brown (on Letterman, she even went so far as to nick James’ white-spats and cape tricks). Yet “Tightrope,” with its jaunty backbeat and shrill, near-synthetic horn blasts, is less a Brown tribute than an approximation of Prince doing James Brown.
Monáe is in considerable spiritual debt to Prince throughout The ArchAndroid, but it’s seldom a matter of her trying to ape his sound (although “Wondaland” is some straight-up Around the World In A Day shit), than it is her striving to emulate his artistic reach. The fearlessness that Prince displayed throughout the ’80s is amply displayed on The ArchAndroid, and Monáe’s gift is that she’s focused her ambition into the most effective results.
The album deftly integrates soulful psychedelia (most notably on the swirling, Band of Gypsys-does-“Crimson and Clover”-sounding track “Mushroom and Roses”) and jazzy, guitar-driven swing punk (“Come Alive”) that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fishbone album. It has a track (“57821”) that sounds like a cross between Vashti Bunyan and the United States of America and another (“Oh, Maker”) that, no lie, could be an Innervisions outtake that Stevie didn’t know about. The ArchAndroid even puts Saul Williams and Of Montreal to work on the same record. If that’s not stylistic diversity, I don’t know what is.
It’s certainly not an accident that Janelle Monáe hails from Atlanta’s richly diverse music scene. Some citizens of the ATL prefer to stay within their own particular genre walls, but there’s a lot of give-and-get in the city, too. Monáe’s musical vision is to Atlanta 2010 what the post-punk and new wave scene was to New York in 1980 – a seamless blend of dance, soul, art, pretense, ambition and rock & roll. Defiantly colorblind and infinitely open-eared, Monáe – like her fellow ATLians in OutKast – uses anything she feels like to get her musical point across, and on The ArchAndroid, she gets her point across beautifully.
First appeared June 23, 2010 in Orlando Weekly.